Your microwave popcorn bags are full of harmful “forever chemicals”

You may not be able to see PFAS molecules around you, but they are ubiquitous: in our food, leaching into our water supplies, and in our blood. The class of water-resistant compounds used to make raincoats waterproof and nonstick pans stick-proof are also known as “forever chemicals,” so named because they do not naturally break down in the environment (or in our bloodstream). Some of the mundane everyday objects where they can be found include common food packaging products like fast food wrappers, non-stick cookware and microwaveable popcorn bags.

Brosché mentioned pizza boxes as a prime example: If you observe a “shiny surface” to them, that’s the PFAS coating. “It’s almost like oil or something like that,” she said.

The publication of a March 2023 study co-authored by IPEN — or the International Pollutants Elimination Network — makes clear the extent to which PFAS are getting into our bodies through microwave popcorn. Sinisterly, this quotidian movie-time snack could pose a health threat. 

Indeed, as Dr. Sara Brosché, Science Advisor with IPEN, explained to Salon, high levels of forever chemicals in one’s body threatens fertility.

“PFAS are related to issues around fertility and endocrine disruption,” Brosché said. She likened the apocalyptic PFAS scenario to something like “The Handmaid’s Tale” — a sci-fi show about a fertility crisis partially caused by environmental pollution that results in a post-apocalyptic and patriarchal society. “Not the whole scenario — obviously that has a lot of other implications — but just looking at the premise of, what if we cannot reproduce anymore?”

In the joint study that IPEN published with the help of the Nexus3 Foundation, an Indonesian public interest organization, scientists analyzed 29 microwaveable popcorn samples produced by four major popcorn companies: the American Popcorn Company, which makes Jolly Time; Conagra, which makes Act II; Ramsey Popcorn, which makes Cousin Willie’s; and Preferred Popcorn. Without exception, all of the popcorn bags tested positive for one or more PFAS. For example, Jolly Time and Act II bags often had perfluorobutanoic acid and perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA); Cousin Willie’s bags often had fluorotelomer alcohols (FTOHs); and Preferred Popcorn bags often had FTOHs and PFHxA.

If you feel confused keeping up with this word salad of acronyms, you are not alone. Indeed, your confusion is the not-entirely-unwelcome byproduct of a method seemingly used by large corporations to avoid health and environmental regulations.

“It’s very, very difficult for consumers to keep track of all of these substances,” Brosché admitted. “I’m a chemist and I’m having difficulties!”

“There are so many thousands of different PFAS chemicals in different chemical classes with different amount of fluorine atoms in these different molecules,” Brosché told Salon. The fluorine atoms are the magic ingredient that, chemically, makes these compounds incredibly resistant to water, grease or anything that comes their way; if you’ve ever seen water or oil bead on a nonstick pan, that’s thanks to PFAS.

Brosché noted that existing PFAS are constantly being replaced by newer chemicals as previous ones become subjects of concern to public health experts. “Every time one of these PFAS molecules are getting regulated, the industry just comes up with a new one that is slightly shorter or slightly different, but it still has basically the same function and the same health impacts,” Brosché said. “They typically have been regulated one-by-one instead of regulating the whole class.” This is a process known as “regrettable substitution.”

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Yet while in theory there are an endless variety of PFAS, the reality is that the chemicals pretty much look the same — and inside your body, they all have similar effects.

“Look at the products that contain them,” Brosché told Salon. Brosché mentioned pizza boxes as a prime example: If you observe a “shiny surface” to them, that’s the PFAS coating. “It’s almost like it’s oil or something like that,” she said.

PFAS do not merely look unappetizing; these “forever chemicals” have been linked to health ailments ranging from pregnancy problems and lower sperm counts to liver disease and high blood pressure. Despite these concerns, only one of the four popcorn companies studied in the new research (Conagra) responded by promising to change; they told the authors that they have removed PFAS from their ACT II products in the United States as of 2022 and from their global ACT II products as of March 2023. Salon reached out to all four companies for comment and has not heard back as of the time of this writing. Some watchdog groups occasionally report on which brands claim to avoid PFAS, though it is ever-changing; hence, consumers who want to protect themselves from forever chemicals may need to educate themselves for the foreseeable future.

“It’s very, very difficult for consumers to keep track of all of these substances,” Brosché admitted. “I’m a chemist and I’m having difficulties! There has to be regulation first. And then of course, for a regular consumer: if there is a table of contents for, or a list of, what a product contains, if they use the words ‘per-fluor,’ then that indicates the product has PFAS in it and should not be used.”

IPEN and Nexus3 argue that popcorn makers should eliminate PFAS from their products, and fully disclose PFAS in existing products until they have all been phased out and shifted to safe alternatives. They also advocate for governments to list all PFAS for global elimination under the Stockholm Convention and ban the sale and importation of PFAS-treated food packaging such as microwaveable popcorn bags.

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